Sunday, July 27, 2014

When the Market Basket Workers Fight Back, Everyone Wins

I didn't make this, but it sums up the movement's feelings pretty well

Market Basket supermarkets, my first-ever place of employment, has made the news for its companywide demonstrations against the ousting of former president Arthur T. Demoulas as part of a longtime family rivalry.  Arthur T.’s firing led to employee demonstrations in front of every store (“Honk if you love Artie T!”), a call for shoppers to boycott Market Basket, and empty grocery shelves as truck drivers refuse to deliver products. 

The rivalry between the two Demoulas families has been longstanding as the board of directors split into two factions: one in favor of keeping employee benefits substantial and its store prices ridiculously low (Arthur T.’s side), and the other (led by Arthur S., a.k.a. the Bad Arthur) plotting to make more money by raising prices and looting the employee profit-sharing pool.  The pictures on the movement’s Facebook page sum it up pretty well.

I don’t work for Market Basket anymore, but the Warner store was a big part of my life for a long time.  I spent most of high school and college there, used its paychecks to buy my first two cars, and spent a great many hours in its dairy cooler goofing off with my friends. It’s also where I learned about work, how not to fake sick when going to a music festival, and how to balance a part-time job with school, creative work, and a social life.

It’s more than just nostalgia, though, that drove me to follow the saga of the company where I once earned my living stocking the half and half shelves; it’s what the Market Basket battle represents in our country’s struggle to counter trends of increasing imbalance.

Right now, Market Basket employees earn twice yearly bonuses, varying in size depending on the worker’s wages and the time spent at the company.  They’re also offered shares in an employee profit-sharing program where they can cash out a large sum of money after retiring.  Again, this amount varies depending on the time spent with the company.  In an age where the pension and profit sharing programs of the post-war era have been dismantled in favor of individual retirement plans, Market Basket offers its workers (even the part-time ones) a long-term deal that rewards loyalty and discourages job-hopping. 

Think of it this way: if the grocery store across the street offers an experienced worker with profit-sharing benefits a higher salary to do the same job, that worker is less likely to accept because the offer involves a greater long-term loss.  Employee longevity offers pluses for both sides as workers enjoy higher benefits and the company spends less money training new employees.  It also gives workers more incentive to stick up for their rights, while a culture of job-hoppers will just grumble and seek out a better deal somewhere else.  The people in charge don't always like that.

Profit-sharing weighs heavily in company politics, as when Arthur T. replaced a full $46 million in bad investments lost in the 2008 crisis.  Such an act did not go unnoticed, and with Artie T. gone, workers fear their profit-sharing and other perks could be taken away. 

Financial matters aside, though, building a loyal worker base offers social benefits that, as Arthur T. has stated, “can’t be measured in dollars and cents.”  Higher benefits mean workers can put their children through college, buy houses without being foreclosed on, and take vacations to improve their quality of life.  Developed skillsets and company loyalty also yield positive results for communities as customers enjoy consistent service and interact with happier employees rather than a revolving door of untrained workers and policies favoring anonymity.  Customers are growing tired of the big-box model anyway, as this 2011 NewEgg commercial suggests.

These values go beyond company profits and bottom lines.  Contrary to what Mitt Romney might think, corporations are just abstract entities existing around the people who work for them.  When real, human workers (the people who make up the majority of the company) are seen as transient and expendable rather than loyal members of the group, it becomes easier for CEOs to dismiss them as undeserving of the company rewards while they quietly increase their own salaries.  Americans are becoming more aware of increasing gaps between the top and bottom of the corporate hierarchy, and one way to discourage such behavior is to consider all members of a company as playing for the same team.

It’s one thing, though, for us to sit around on the internet discussing poor working conditions and another to actually do something about them.  The Market Basket delivery boycotts and employee protests (thousands attended the Tewksbury rally on Friday) are the closest I’ve seen to a full worker strike in my area, the kind of Upton Sinclair/Sylvester Stallone-style protests that gave us the five-day workweek, safer working conditions, and hundreds of other benefits that people every day take for granted.  The strength of the Market Basket protests sends a clear message that corporations can’t manipulate workers and get away with it, and that people will take action when they’re treated unfairly.

Some may argue that with capitalism, workers are free to get a new job if working conditions don’t meet their satisfaction, and that a competitive free labor market can only help workers as companies fight to win their favor.  Unfortunately, though, with nationwide unemployment still at 6.1% and some states as high as 7.9%, finding a new job is easier said than done.  Worse still, if every company offers low wages and minimal benefits, what incentive does a new company have to offer more when it knows that workers will settle for less?

The Market Basket workers have said they’re not going to give in until Arthur T. comes back.  Meanwhile, the bad publicity, empty store shelves, and lost revenue have prompted rumors of Arthur T.’s buying out the other side as the quickest path to resolution.  No matter what the outcome, the New England grocery world isn’t likely to remain the same, and if we’re lucky, both workers and board members everywhere will take notice.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Midwestern Candy Review: Cherry Mash

It's like an orgasm in my mouth and everyone's invited.  Oh yes.

This bad boy is a midwestern-only specialty from St. Joseph, Missouri: Cherry Mash, a regional discovery whose greatness outranks both Zero bars and Ruby Red Squirt.  Like all good early 20th century packaged foods (the label proudly boasts "Since 1918"), it still retains its cute cartoon mascot: the Chase Cop. 

Inside the wrapper hides this chocolatey ball of nugget.  It's misshapen, bumpy, and resembles a small turd, the least attractive candy I've seen in an age where candy bars come with smooth outer chocolate shells (sometimes with that wisp fused to the top where the machine dripped a final line of melted chocolate back on to the bar.  Funny how what started as a natural twist of the baker's spatula can be reproduced so precisely by a machine).  This effect causes the candy to resemble something made at home with baking chocolate and a bag of nuts rather than in a factory using the artificial flavors listed on the wrapper.

I can't believe how good this candy is.  The inside consists of a thick cherry fondant, a mix of maraschino cherries and that cherry flavoring one finds in popsicles and Life Savers.  I love cherry cordials, but this - the inside of this compresses all the flavor of a cherry cordial into a marshmallowy ball of sugar goodness. It's richer than a regular nougat-based candy (think Snickers or Milky Way), which it can get away with due to its small size (I finished mine in four and a half bites); a full bar of this would yield a sugar overload and cost as much as a small cake.  I paid $1.29 for mine at an outmoded convenience store/car wash, a haven for these kinds of regional treats.

Those driving (or residing) in the Midwest would be wise to check out Cherry Mash (the Chase website offers a location map).  Others can try making Cherry Mash at home - your hand-rolled mashes shouldn't look much different than the ones made in the factory.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Daily Grind (or, What I've Been Working On Lately)

Few things bore me more than hearing about other people's writing habits, but here are a few words about mine:

Summer's here, grad school classes are done, and aside from some paying work not worth mentioning, I've been living out an entirely self-motivated schedule, something I've been working toward for a long time.  My biggest task is finishing the novel (the current draft, anyway) once and for all, a goal that's nearer now than it's ever been.  Mornings are good for that, a chance to wake up, plan a point of attack while in the shower or frying eggs, and sit down at the computer (internet cable safely unplugged) until lunch.  Getting started can be rough, and reading a few pages from an old favorite (most recently Catch-22, Murphy, Lucky Jim, The Mezzanine, or Something Happened) helps get me motivated and starts the words flowing.  Reach a stopping point, eat lunch, and schedule the next novel-writing day.  Repeat until done.

Having more time also means more devotion to side projects - undertakings both necessary and dangerously distracting.  Foremost has been this year's Art Swap project, more complex than I'd planned, but moving toward an ideal that combines both writing and graphic art.  (More on this later, though my last entry sprung from an Art Swap outtake.)

Then there's been my real and always arduous attempts to get more of my writing out there (like, in places where people can actually see it).  For a long time, I've been torn between how much time to devote to creation vs. self-promotion: given our limited creative energy, does submitting and researching publishing outlets detract from the (more important) process of creation?  This question's hounded me for a long time, but I've realized that I spend far, far too little time on the distribution end of things, especially since the two tasks occupy different portions of the brain, can be done at different times of the day, and aren't mutually exclusive.

So I've been delving into realms both traditional (fiction slush piles) and non (podcasts, literary essays, travel fiction, etc.) in hopes of snagging some bites.  I left one success sadly unmentioned: Sam Roman was kind enough to feature my short piece, Korean-Man Purse, on her new project, Non Finito, the journal of unfinished writing.  I was glad to help Sam out (getting this thing started meant a lot to her), and I found...relief in sending out a scene (and a character) from the novel that ended up on the cutting room floor. Jackson did a lot to form the first draft's quick pacing and irreverent tone, and if all goes as planned, we haven't seen the last of him.

I've also let my personal reading slip by the wayside, and the stack of unread books next to my bed recently rose to rival my nightstand in height.  Reading's always been important to me, and I felt disgusted at my inability to prioritize it against grad school assignments.  Highlights of my return to the page include The Loved One (a solid comic novel by the underappreciated Evelyn Waugh), Don Delillo's White Noise, and a supermarket crime novel (i.e. a crime novel set in a supermarket) by my last workshop teacher Sean Doolittle (here's his actual webpage, not a Wikipedia entry). 

Of my last month's reading, though, I most recommend Steve Martin's Shopgirl to anyone looking for something smart, funny, and incredibly observational.  The Shopgirl movie's good, but the book is better, while also being a fast read (barely over a hundred pages).  The absurd commentary of Steve Martin's storytelling makes it all work in a way that's just fun to read.  Here's a piece:
Jeremy took Mirabelle on approximately two and a half dates.  The half date was actually a full evening, but was so vaporous that Mirabelle had trouble counting it as a full unit.  On the first, which consisted mainly of shuffling around a shopping mall while Jeremy tried to graze her ass with the back of his hand, he split the dinner bill with her and then, when she suggested they actually go inside the movie theater whose new neon front so transfixed Jeremy, made her pay for her own ticket.
Wish I'd written that.

Community's important too, and long, solitary days have led me to venture out to SP CE (pronounced "Space"), Lincoln, Nebraska's own poetry studio and writer's workshop group (prose and all hybrids welcome).  It's been good having people to talk writing and just share observations with a few hours a week, plus interacting in an environment that's primarily about the work itself, and not what it can do for one's professional career.

That's all for now.  I won't lie - I miss this blog tremendously, and as my entries become fewer and online traffic merges from blogs to Facebook, what I post here has become even more focused toward an audience of one (though Google still rates me as an authority on people who hate being called "buddy").  I've also been inspired by my former roommate and partner-in-writing-crime Randall's return to blogging with the creation of his Magic the Gathering-inspired card game 21 Others, which he's been writing, assembling, and testing.  No one stays away from the process for long.

Someday, I imagine, I'll have a bona fide website (or at least a Wordpress one) with pictures, more links, and a flashy design scheme, but for now, I'll just keep posting stuff here.  You know, because it's fun.